Saturday, December 04, 2021

Weekend Post

How do you know if your script is any good?  That’s always the big question for young scribes writing a spec script. You may like it but will anybody else?

Giving it to friends and family rarely yields objective reactions. Of course they’re going to love it. They want to love it. (Or hate it depending your family).

And the truth is most people not in the business don’t know how to read a script (as opposed to those IN the business where only half don’t know how to read a script). It’s difficult for many people to read stage directions and dialogue and be able to picture the scene. That’s not a knock on anybody. I can’t read a blueprint or a shopping list.

This is why I always recommend young writers take classes and meet other aspiring writers. Surround yourself with peers. There will usually be one or two whose opinions you value. Give the script to them. Be mindful that there may be some jealousy or competitive dynamics at work but you can generally sift through that.

Teachers are another good source of feedback if you value their assessment.

Generally, it’s best to give you script to several readers. There is a downside to this of course. You may get five different reactions from five different people – and some of the notes might be contradictory. Just like you'll get when you do make it in the business. You have to decide who (if anybody) is right.

But the good news is if you hear the same note from four sources it’s a pretty good bet they’re right. You can address all these issues before sending out your script.

There’s no clear-cut formula on how to know whether a note is a good one or bad. And especially, with people not in the business (dreaded “non pros”), their notes might be bad because they’re not adept at solving script problems, but you as the creator have to see beyond that. Don’t just dismiss the notes. Something bothers them and they don’t have the experience to identify just what it is. That’s your job. Based on their note, try to work backwards and guess what exactly might be the problem.

Always consider seriously the note, “I don’t get this.” You may think you’ve explained something sufficiently but you haven’t. We often get too close to our work. Those are generally helpful notes.

The very best way to judge your script is to arrange for a table reading. HEAR IT. Taking into consideration that the actors you use will often times be busboys at Costco and a foreign exchange student from Norway – not exactly Meryl Streep and Christian Bale, and the small audience will be somewhat biased in your favor (don't invite your family if they're not) – but you can hear the rhythm, hear the flow, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And if you have a comedy, laughter (or lack of it) will tell you what’s funny.

At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. YOU have to decide whether your script is good.  Just remember, Universal passed on STAR WARS.

Best of luck!


Craig Gustafson said...

I've been writing 10 minute plays, three of which have been published in anthologies. When I finished my first full-length play, I gathered some of the best actors I know for a reading. They all knew and respected each other's talent, and felt they had to bring their A game. When something wasn't clear to them in the writing, I didn't have to ask them - I could hear it in the way they read it. They were all intelligent, so if *they* didn't get it, I needed to rewrite and clarify. We did have a discussion afterward, and I took notes throughout.

After rewriting, I repeated the process a couple of months later with a different set of actors, this time with an invited audience, so I could hear where the laughs are (and where they aren't). Discussion followed. More tightening.

The play was accepted at a local theater, I cast it and two days before the first blocking rehearsal, everything was shut down by the pandemic. However, this week I submitted it for the Woodward/Newman Award, knowing that even if it doesn't win (and it probably won't - it's a throwback Burns & Allen-style comedy that dives occasionally into farce), it's good enough to compete. If it does win, cash is involved and it will be staged.

VincentS said...

When the Universal executive who turned down STAR WARS was asked about that he wearily said, "Yes, we turned down 200 projects that year and one of them was STAR WARS." But George Lucas had just made AMERICAN GRAFFITI for Universal for less than $1 million and it made $40 million which raises the question of those other projects he turned down how many came from some one who just made him $40 million?

VincentS said...

I think one should get actors to read one's script which is easier than ever now thanks to Zoom. Actors give a flavor to words better than anyone with no acting training therefore it's a better way to determine what works and what doesn't. In Ken Burns's documentaries, for example, he has actors reading words from letters and diaries, etc. that were probably not meant to be recited yet the actors made the words sound conversational.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I've written two spec scripts before, both of which were for popular animated series, and both times, I let others read them to get their opinions on them. Luckily for me, the general consensus from those who read them felt that I did an adequate job in keeping the characters in-characters while placing them in situations they haven't necessarily dealt with within the source material before in a way that felt respectful to the series' overall tone.

Since the first show is finally about to come to an end, I suppose I can reveal that this show I wrote a spec for was ARTHUR. The producer/director used to interact with fans online years ago, and after I contacted him about the matter, he set me up with one of the show's production assistants at WGBH in Boston where the story development and writing takes place (while the actual animation and voice acting is done up in Canada). After the PA had me sign a release form signifying that my submission was not unsolicited material, I was informed that my spec would be forwarded to their head writer during their next story meeting, and either one of them would get back to me . . . nobody ever did, but truth be told, even the producer/director was amazed I got as far as I did. He did tell me, however, that often times, if the writers get an idea or material that seems promising, then they'll reserve them in an "ideas bag" for them to refer to whenever they need something for a minor subplot, or maybe even a 'B' storyline (since ARTHUR has the two 11-minute A-B episode format).

As I said, they never used it, but looking back on it now, I kind of realize the script wasn't that great, and I'm totally fine that they never used it.

The other animated series I wrote a spec for is still going strong on TV, and still very popular . . . I would love to write for this show. I actually hold far more confidence in the spec that I wrote for this one than I did my ARTHUR spec (and even have other episode ideas I'd love to pitch) . . . however, this time, I am unable to submit my spec. This time, I contacted the show's head writer directly (always go to the top, am I right?) and asked about their procedures for getting spec material submitted . . . he informed me that, unfortunately, their studio has no procedure set into place that would allow their writers to legally accept and/or read such material written for their own shows, so that door is closed. He even shared his past experiences with me of how back in the days when he was a struggling writer, he and his then-partner wrote a spec for FRIENDS, and the only ones who wouldn't read their spec was FRIENDS. He suggested I shop my spec around to other shows to see if I could write for any of them, which I agree is really good advice, though I'm not interested in writing for other shows.

kitano0 said...

Good article on Mel Brooks in the Guardian today, folks.

Brian Fies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Thanks for this advice Ken. It's truly appreciated.

I now have three screenplays completed, and plan to begin work soon on a fourth.

One quick question if I may: how many scripts would you recommend I have in the can and ready to show people, before looking for an agent?

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've told this story before, but personalities play a big part in opinions. I had a writing teacher that for whatever reason didn't like me personally. He hated everything I wrote. One time everyone in class liked what I had written. So, since he couldn't criticize the content he had to nitpick about my grammar. I used a singular noun and a plural verb or something like that. Ultimately I could never tell if what I had written was truly no good or if it was personal. Ironically, this teacher had the credentials that I would have otherwise respected.
The next semester I showed some of my stuff to the new teacher and he loved it. Mind you that this was some of the same material that the previous teacher had hated. Talk about contradictory notes.

As far as peers go they're of little help. Many of my fellow students thought they were much funnier than they actually were. They were just starting out, yet they were already hacks. They were the kind that stole jokes or even whole scenes from e.g. "South Park," "The Simpsons" or "SNL," etc., and thought they were clever writers. Needless to say I didn't pay much attention to their opinions. My sketches my not have always been funny, but at least I tried to be as original as possible.
To digress for a moment, that's one of the hardest things about writing. Trying to be original. It never fails that I think I've come up with a new idea or joke only to find out that "SNL" or "The Smothers Brothers" or Jack Benny did it years ago. Paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, There's nothing new under the sun.

And even when there are people who's opinions you do respect and value they make very clear on their blog or other places that they won't read a script. Sound like anyone you know, Ken?
That's way I've said, only half jokingly, if I could get Ken to direct my play he would have to read it. Or maybe not.

It's often said that determination rather than talent is the key factor of success. Those that work the hardest break through. (Whether they've any good or not) The rest of us...ah, the wasted potential.


Big Murr said...

Of side interest is this advice is exactly what is given for authors and our novels (short stories). Find a writing group for peer critique and even down to the reading it out loud (usually to yourself).

Sifting thru comments/critiques is a secondary skill. Four of five hitting the same snag is easy. After a while, though, it very much depends on who is making the comment. There are one or two in my writing group whose skill and insight I respect enough to sit up and take notice even if they are the only one to voice a concern.

E. Yarber said...

Speaking as someone who made a career out of evaluating writing, I'll reluctantly toss out a few thoughts on Quitting.

LA seems to be the world capitol of people banging their heads against a brick wall, and I've had to deal with many of them both personally and professionally. I think the key phrase in Brian's comment is "they can't quit on their dream." Moving forward creatively involves setting dreams aside and treating the profession as a job like any other.

Most of the submissions I've seen are composed on a beginner's level. That's no sin. Everybody starts that way. However, you have to be able to bring your game up to a much higher standard to break through all the stages of approval required for serious work. The problem for too many hopefuls is that they don't want to let go of the "dream" in order to face the hard reality of the business they want to enter. When anyone tries to temper their notions, even in an encouraging way, they turn their attention off because they perceive such criticism as an attack on their dreams, which they should never give up. The same folks who tell me "I'll do ANYTHING to Make It," don't seem to include revising their text or accepting the nature of the marketplace as part of "anything."

Now that everyone's sure I'm an arrogant swine, I'll add that I followed the same advice I try to give beginning writers. A few years ago, I signed up to write a book on order for a minor "celebrity." When I spoke to people in publishing, however, they were unanimous in telling me the project was dead in the water. I realized I was on the wrong track and had the contract dissolved. Then I went back to square one. I took writing classes, getting feedback on my new work from students and professional writers alike. I workshopped a project for fifteen months. It's been nominated for a literary grant. Now I'm getting attention from within the field.

Having been part of the machine, I am able to appreciate the quality of the encouragement and advice I'm receiving. If the professionals giving me notes told me my current effort was as misjudged as the previous ones, I'd be seriously questioning my goals, but accepting the reality of my situation, then regrouping and correcting my mistakes seems to have changed things for the better. It's a hard pill to swallow and means a lot of time building a new foundation, but hanging on to the former option all this time would have been nothing but a trip to limbo.

So there are means to get an objective picture of your stuff, as long as you're willing to listen and respect the folks trying to help you. Hope that helps.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Max Bloodworth: sometimes things are new. I quite like this, which I found this week:


Malcolm Burns said...

E. Yarber, if you've made a career out of evaluating writing name one that was filmed or published. No offense your posts are always informative but never any specifics.

N. Zakharenko said...

Vincent S

"which raises the question of those other projects he turned down how many came from some one who just made him $40 million"

So you're the guy who bankrupted United Artists with Heaven's Gate, because you were so sure that Michael Cimino's next movie after Deer Hunter would be a hit.

mike schlesinger said...

My current script, a comedy set in 1961, has so far been passed on by ten B-list actresses, most of whom said they "couldn't relate to the material." I wonder if any of them also turned down "Mrs. Maisel."

Daz Rosin said...

Hi Ken!

I was just watching this Dramatists Guild interview with Stephen Sondheim, and at about 40min in he points out a couple of drawings he has by Larry Gelbart. Just a couple of seconds, but I thought it might tickle you.


Leighton said...


How do you react to "The New AP" style of writing? Deadline now refers to "Netflix' schedule." It is just WRONG. It's making me crazy. The Washington Post. The LA Times. They are ALL embracing this idiocy. "CBS' schedule." "Lucas' film." NO. NO. NO.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Friday question:

Ken, have you ever collected classic jokes in an archive or folder for study or future use? I've been reading Simon Louvish's bio of Mae West ("It Ain't No Sin") and he discovered over 2,000 pages of jokes in her own handwriting that she collected during her career (20,000+ jokes overall). She studied the joke forms and often used them as the basis for the quips and oneliners need she was famous for. Some of them went back to early days of vaudeville and there were even magazines for comics that compiled popular jokes.

Apparently bawdy Lady Lou stayed at home many nights after performing, studying her craft and writing scripts. Louvish says a lot of comedians have collected and studied jokes. Was this ever a practice of yours and if so what did you learn about joke forms and patterns over the years that was important to your work?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Puts me in the mind of the Warner Bros cartoon "What's Up Doc?" (1950):

Bugs is telling his life story to a reporter. He has become a great success. He is surrounded by a pile of prospective scripts.

BUGS: "Offers poured in."

Bugs leafs through LIFE WITH FATHER.

BUGS: "Ehh, it'll never be a hit."

Mike Bloodworth said...

I asked the same question a while back. He answered in a "Friday Questions" blog a couple of months ago. Check previous blogs.

Mitch said...

Busboys at Costco? Boy, life in LA is sure different

scottmc said...

A brief rant; I would like to believe that Natalie Wood, were she alive, would be among the biggest supporters of the remake of West Side Story. That said, I feel that she has been slighted by some who are trumpeting the remake. While championing this version, supporters highlight that Wood didn't do her own singing and that she wasn't Puerto Rican.(She wanted to do the former and couldn't help not being the latter.) It reminded of DELOVELY,the Cole Porter biopic starring Kevin Kline was released. The filmmakers constantly trashed NIGHT AND DAY, the 1945 Porter biopic starring Cary Grant. I believe that Wood has the distinction of being the only actor to appear in two Hollywood film versions of musicals featuring the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.(West Side Story and Gypsy.) I feel one can urge moviegoers to see the remake without taking shots at the original.